Vulpes Libris

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Tony Benn: Dare to be a Daniel

benndanielIn 1928, when I was three, there was a huge flood in London and I remember looking out of the window and seeing boats sailing down the street in front of our house [40 Grosvenor Road, now the site of the Millbank Tower], which became completely flooded in the basement… When the mess in the basement was being cleared up, we discovered that a suitcase full of Sidney Webb’s underwear had floated in from next door.  I suppose that entitles me to claim that my political roots were based in Fabianism.  (Chapter Three, Life at Home, p. 71)

Early-life memoir is a very serious business. Memories are raked over; grudges are reanimated; positions are defended, and the roots of conviction sought.  Nothing is without significance.  Above all, nothing is childish, in the best sense of the word.  The dignity of the narrator is generally too high to allow for silliness.

Dare to be a Daniel is another matter.  It is a reflection in three parts, beginning with Faith and ending with Socialism.  Sandwiched between them is a brief history of Tony Benn, from ancestors to early marriage, and it is fabulous: chaotic, opinionated and frequently, brilliantly, silly.  Serious thoughts about co-education, Clause Four and Congregationalism mix with school stories, scouting adventures and wholesale reproductions of Benn family jokes (some of them illustrated).  It is plain-spoken, witty and wry and wonderful.  It is pure essence of Benn, and for those who miss him there is no better thing.

I am afraid this is a very short review, because it is hard to write (and because I don’t want to tell you too much and ruin all the best bits).  If you know my posting history here, you’ll know I make a habit of writing Very Serious Things about political memoir, and am often Terribly Conflicted about the author.  I was not conflicted about Tony Benn: like so many others, I loved him and relied on him to be there, speaking calm, quiet sense, when all else was going horribly wrong.  The loss of him is still too raw to allow for any degree of detachment.  And so I’ll leave you here, with one of the lines that broke through my sadness and made me laugh.  From his experiences as a fifteen-year-old ARP volunteer in Oban:

A Warden’s Report Form from October that year, in my writing, describes: ‘House collapsed and FIRE spreading, THREE German aircraft seen, SIX of ours in pursuit. RAF Motorboats in attendance. Warden SMITH slightly wounded,’ which must have been a practice report, as there were no raids as far as I remember. (Chapter 7, The Outbreak of War, p. 126)

Arrow, ISBN: 978-0099471530, 288 pp.  Also available for e-reader via Cornerstone Digital.


9 comments on “Tony Benn: Dare to be a Daniel

  1. Pingback: Dare to be a Daniel | Kirsty Jane McCluskey

  2. Melrose
    March 28, 2014

    Thank you for a lovely review of Dare to be a Daniel. The selections you picked were very represenative of Tony Benn’s personality – I could just imagine him telling the anecdotes.

    He did have a lovely “send off”. Some of the crowd were visibly moved, and representation by groups such as Stop the War and The Durham Miners’ Association gave the whole event the atmosphere and appearance of a protest demonstration, something I think Benn would rather have appreciated!

  3. Jackie
    March 29, 2014

    Mr. Benn is unfamiliar to us on this side of The Pond, and upon reading this, we have overlooked someone who had good things to say and do. While the references are very British, your review has made me think I need to learn more about this man. Your heartfelt grief at his loss is very moving and you are very brave to do this review while the feelings are so fresh. Thank you.

  4. kirstyjane
    March 29, 2014

    Thank you very much, both, for the lovely comments. I appreciate them very much!

    Jackie, you might also be interested in the story of Tony Benn’s wife Caroline, née De Camp, who was from Cincinnati and a major figure in her own right.

  5. Melrose
    March 29, 2014

    It is certainly worth having a look at Benn in action on Youtube, Jackie, to get a flavour of the passion of the man, and his oratory. And, if you want to learn more about him, to read his diaries, which he published in book form – they make for well written and interesting reading. Hopefully, you will be able to access the video of him debating Iraq with John Bolton. Although of an advancing age at that time, Benn’s persona and beliefs were as vibrant as ever. His wife, Caroline, was born in Ohio, and they met at Oxford. I think they were married 51 years,until she died..

  6. Jackie
    March 30, 2014

    Thanks for the recommendations, both of you. I’ll definitely check YouTube and the link above to start learning more about Mr. Benn.
    John Bolton, ugh! He has no business being in politics on any level, much less the world stage, with his narrow, xenophobic view of things. He’s an icky person.

  7. Melrose
    March 30, 2014

    I think the audience felt much the same about John Bolton as you did, Jackie!

  8. Moira
    March 31, 2014

    Lovely, heartfelt review. Tony Benn’s death reinforced the fact that today’s politicians – of all political persuasions – are so horribly bland. As soon as I heard he’d died, I thought to myself, “People are going to be reaching for the phrase ‘I didn’t always agree with him, but …’ – and by golly, they did, in droves. That’s the hallmark of a statesman, and they’re in very short supply today.

  9. rosyb
    April 5, 2014

    They’ve been repeating his diaries on Radio Four – which I’ve loved listening to. And Moira – I agree – we seem to have moved away from the age of character (or even characters!) to the age of identikit . I watched pundits debating the other day who looked more like prime minister of Ed M and David C and one went on about how being tall was terribly important in the televisual age and then burbled on for a while about presidential style (did remind me a little of the French and Saunders Royal expert “Oooo I think the Queen Mum would probably have a napkin. Maybe square. With four corners.” sort of thing.) We seem to have identikit “types” now presented – when surely we should be moving towards more diversity? It’s very depressing to hear this sort of thing. On the other hand – the public have often responded to characters that the media wouldn’t accept as “the image” required. Look at Mo Mowlam, for example. So maybe the media and public are two very different things.

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